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Water may flow more freely to drought-stricken farmers

Mass rallies help ease restrictions

Merdies Hayes | 3/21/2014, midnight
There has been good news from Sacramento for drought-weary farmers. On Tuesday the state Water Resources Control Board moved to ...

There has been good news from Sacramento for drought-weary farmers. On Tuesday the state Water Resources Control Board moved to ease some protection for fish in the fragile San Joaquin-Sacramento River Delta, a decision that may make available more water for farmers...and ease political tensions in an election year.

The decision is a retreat from restrictions implemented in January which had been widely expected to increase even further. Citing the brief rains this month, regulators said there was enough water supply in the state’s reservoirs to partially ease restrictions.

“We were quite concerned at that time about the issue of public health and safety,” said Tom Howard, executive director of the water board. “This really had the markings of an historic drought.” Essentially, an intensive lobbying campaign from farmers, lawmakers from agricultural regions—including Sens. Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer—helped to convince the water board to focus more on dry fields and pastures, instead of the two-inch Delta smelt which environmentalists contend is a critically endangered fish.

Related to this decision were rallies this week by thousands of farmers who are opposed to regulations that have frozen state water supplies. They are contesting a U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruling last week that upheld federal guidelines limiting water deliveries from north to south. The ruling went against a lower-court ruling that overturned the 2008 guidelines from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service; environmentalists fought to save the guidelines, but the farmers say the restrictions prevent vital water supplies from reaching the areas that need it most.

California remains affected by the one of the worst droughts in state history and, despite the rains this month, some small communities are at risk of running out of drinking water and farmers may have to abandon even more land than the already half-million acres that have been laid fallow. Torrance in the South Bay this week enacted restrictions on water use, including a ban on daytime watering. This happened in 2009 and residents responded by decreasing water use by 17 percent. The ordinance will apply to all municipal customers not served by California Water Service. As in most cities, outdoor irrigation in Torrance accounts for about 40 percent of all residential water use. The city receives some 80 percent of its water from the state water project via the Metropolitan Water District, which supplies 25 percent of water to Southern California.

The drought may have parched 500,000 acres, resulting in higher grocery bills nationwide, but California’s hydro plants have not declared any emergency thanks to a mix of renewable energy, natural gas, and most of all, conservation methods.

“From an electricity generation and reliability standpoint, the drought isn’t going to have a major impact,” said Edward Randolph, director of the energy division of the California Public Utilities Commission. “There [are] ample resources to meet demand.”

Californians have invested both in new energy sources such as the solar power program in Lancaster and the new power plant in Palmdale, as well as in measures to generate reliable power in response to the energy crisis of 2001 and major heat waves in 2006. Regulations now require utilities to procure, ahead of time, reserve electricity at least 15 percent in excess of their forecasted demand to ensure cities can meet demand in worst-case scenarios.